American Idol loves Savannah, Georgia, y'all. It's perfect to stage cross-promotional soundtracking of Lauren Alaina's single "Georgia Peaches," to attract plenty of country singers that make up what's increasingly Idol's core demographic, to make lots of chiding-but-not-really-chiding cracks about the South, and to banter about how hot it is.
Sadly for Fox, audiences didn't quite share in the Southern pride; the premiere was the show's worst ratings drop in its history, likely because of lack of buzz, a flooded market--X Factor's finale was less than a month ago--and sheer attrition. Idol would prefer "venerable history" to "attrition," if the decade's retrospective big-upping and Roman-text Idol logo, but if the show wants to be Rome, it's getting to the late-empire stage.
That said, Idol still doled out plenty of bread and circuses, workmanlike good voices bestowed golden tickets and mediocre singers bestowed loony audition segments. There was less middle ground than ever--either your voice was festooned with praise or with mockery. We, however, like middle ground a bit more, and for the first installment of our ultimate Idol power rankings--see our X Factor coverage to get the idea--we've divvied up the people, places and things on display into four categories: the bad, the mediocre, the good and the great. Where does your favorite stand? Or did he fall instead? Read on to find out.
For exploitative crap, nameless crap and everything else that could be called "crap," click NEXT.
THE HOPELESS: 33-27
33. Savannah Sayings: Two exclamations of Savannah pride to set the scene. 1. “In Savannah, we don’t SEENG, we SAAYNG! WOOO!!” 2. “In Savannah, we love our shrimp 'n’ grits, and we love our SOUTHERN BOYS! WOOO!!”
32. Ryan Seacrest: Has a segment where he asks singers on the street "what is UP with this heat," reducing him to a cub TV reporter. Later, the producers ask him to confront the throngs gunning for his job, including a younger, frattier version of himself, reducing him to a conduit for rumors. Not that the show dispelled them, of course. Part of Seacrest's strength as a host is going along with anything, but even while doing shout battle with his doppelganger, or playing flirt coach to kid Casanovas, activities that require lots of investment in host theatrics, you could practically see him thinking "one more paycheck... one more paycheck...." You sort of wish he'd had wielded some of his clout to rewrite this next segment, though....
31. Mawuena Kodjo: Mawuena Kodjo is not hopeless. He's the blameless subject of one of American Idol's most hopelessly exploitative segments since William Hung. Gather round, kids, and allow Auntie Popdust to explain. They give him subtitles even though everything he says is perfectly understandable, because he's from Africa and has an accent and these are apparently facts the show needs to freak out about. Then Kodjo says he's singing a country song by Rascal Flatts, and if the subtext is too textless, it gets more blatant. After his mediocre-but-dragged-out audition, Ryan takes him downtown, where a wandering townie dude sees and hears and says, sarcasm palpable, "looks like the right guy!" Then he and his cute-but-inert daughters return to the judging panel, unsurprisingly fail to save Kodjo's audition, and the segment closes with a graphics-department postcard of Kodjo and escorts reading "Welcome to Savannah!" What a welcoming, life-affirming place it wasn't.
30. Unnamed Hotties Who Sing Poorly: Anybody want to scour old audition listings for that exact casting call? I'm kind of convinced these people were extras. While you're at it, find the Craigslist ad for a script writer cheesy enough to commit this storyline to teleprompter: "It's hot out... so people are hot too... but you can't have hotness and talent!"
29. Steven Tyler’s Personal Style: If Robin Hood were a flamboyant pimp, he’d think Steven’s floppy magenta hat was too flamboyant and pimpin’. Steven alternated between this costume (which included a black leather vest, a pink paisley collared shirt, and one of those tight yarn hair braids reserved for middle school girls during a tropical vacation) and a slightly less egregious outfit, making the lack of continuity rather obvious.
28. Erica Nowak: Equally obvious: the editing that turned Nowak's eyes into dark pearls, her hair into a snaky mass and her voice into an alto moan, and the lesson: on Idol, if you for some reason want to flirt with Steven Tyler, you'd better be underage and/or coquettish. Really, the e-book pickup line "Steven Tyler is my future ex-husband!" would be point enough. (She also sang a song: "Super Duper Love" by Joss Stone. Her voice was forced but not terrible.)
27. Joshua Chase: Country, pop, rock, all rolled into one, a bit like Jason Mraz--a genre too big to fail! But fail it did, as Joshua sang "I'm Yours" like a twittery, stuttery thing whom Zooey Deschanel would find too twee, then tried to redeem himself with "The Lazy Song." We're still not sure which was most uncomfortable: that, the televised moment where he yelled at the camera crew to stop fucking following him out of his audition, or Randy's Stepford grin.
For those who managed not to be complete disasters, click NEXT.
THE HAPLESS: 26-20
26. Joshua Chase’s Frenemy: While Joshua threw a cussy fit last page, his friend had a laughing fit. We’re glad he wasn’t hopelessly consoling Josh, like so many friends of Idol rejects would; that said, he’s friends with Josh, and therefore hapless by association.
25. Shaun Kraisman: If Ryan Seacrest was an MBA candidate, had a booming-voice on/off switch and didn't look like Ryan so much as a not-glam, blond Adam Lambert, he would be Shaun. If the producers had stressed that trait (his voice isn't a bad Adam knockoff, either, although Shaun apparently prefers worship music to rings of fire and male-P!nk tones), Shaun might've made it.
24. Jessica Whitely: Voice professors the world over are recording this episode to play for their students as a demonstration on how not to tense up your face while singing. Media-studies professors the world over are doing the same with Charice's superimposed "In This Song" as a demonstration on heavy-handed editing.
23. Ford: Did anyone else notice a glittery Ford banner periodically float across the screen? Yeah, we sorta did too. Next week, we’ll more than just sorta notice.
22. Brittany Kerr: An NBA dancer endorsed thusly by Steven: "You're on pitch, and you're good-looking!" Glad Idol has such stringent standards. Honestly, Erika's Joss Stone performance was more interesting.
21. The Soundtrack Besides playing popular songs over montages of the good singers (creating a slight clash effect), the musical coordinator made the unfathomably odd choice of playing Elliot Smith’s “Angeles” when one contestant (stay tuned) was given her “golden ticket.” This song is about not selling out to Hollywood. The fine print on the “golden ticket” is basically “You’re mine now. XOXO, Hollywood (on behalf of Fox).”
20. Steven Tyler: "Savannah's treating me great, but I didn't know you knew her!" An entire segment about his duckface! An entire segment about his lechery, including a shot of his (clothed) ass! Proportion of judging to buffoonery: approximately 5-95.
For Faulkner characters, lover boys and other actually-pretty-decent contenders, click NEXT.
THE HARMLESS: 19-9
19. David “Mister Steal Your Girl” Leathers, Jr.: Both the Michael Jackson (cred!) and Scotty McCreery (victory!) bombs were dropped for this teenage flirt and former McCreery rival, who's seen on screen hitting on at least two people older than him. (One is J. Lo. She thought he looked 12.) His voice is equally precocious--if anything, he sounds a bit like Beyonce right now. But he's undeniably technically skilled, and his teen-lothario schtick should be good for a Hollywood Week episode, at least. Look for him to either move way up or down in the rankings.
18. and 17. Stephanie Renae and Gabi Carrubba: One is a Kewpie-doll Mariah Carey teen lookalike who claims it's "every girl's dream" to be on American Idol--which, to be fair, is probably a dream for every girl watching the show at this point. One is a champion tap dancer with a suspicious amount of home footage. One sang Carrie Underwood's "Inside Your Heaven"; one sang Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning." One made it, one didn't; one was told she sang nasally and didn't "lay on" meaningful notes, whatever that means; one was told more about Steven's duckface than her singing. Both have the same problem: they're still teenagers. Life experience and vocal maturation accomplish things that no quick fix can; without them, your performance will probably be pretty but empty. (Case study: Thia Megia. Remember Thia Megia?) We will mention this again.
16. Coke: After ten seasons of refreshing judges and frustrating viewers, Coke’s intrusion in the premiere episode was surprisingly tame! Still, we’ve got our eye on you, Coke. And if our eye is on you too much, don’t think we won’t shake you.
15. Elise Testone: Per singing-competition tradition, multiple montages showcased five-second blunders and wonders that force recappers to wring grand Top-12 predictions from less than sixteen bars. Our prediction is Elise; the stank in her voice--and a song that was Janis and not "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" or "Grenade"---actually caught our interest amid the prettily-sung blur.
14. Phillip Phillips Sr.: Although he manages to juggle being both a huge supporter of his son’s musical ventures and a huge supporter of taxidermy, his son's name (stay tuned) means he's apparently not a huge supporter of unconfusing naming conventions.
13. Lauren Mink: Wonder how many release forms Idol had to print up and sign to let Fox's camera crew come into Mink's class to vaguely condescendingly film the children and adults with disabilities who are her pupils? Hint: way more than the network would expend on someone they're not planning to take to Hollywood, if not the semifinals. However, she's a pretty country singer with a good low register--albeit on "Country Strong," which most critics called too GOOPy to be genuinely country--so there wasn't really any suspense anyway.
12. The Sailboat: The sailboat in the background window behind the judges had a lovely cadence to its waft and put the contestants at ease without upstaging them. It gets our “yes.” Sailboat, you’re going to Hollywood!!!! Aw, sailboat’s mom came, very sweet.
11. W.T. Thompson: He lives in a place with a name like Appomattox, works as a prison guard, has an entourage of a family and has a name that sounds sort of like "Compson": Idol auditioner or Faulkner character? Will he show us the decrepit, murderous side of Southern life (not to be confused with Little Big Town's "Boondocks" life? My notes about his performance read, simply, "country." I might have them mixed up with my notes on the episode in general.
10. Randy Jackson: Keeps the "dawg"s impounded and stays out of "in it to win it," for the most part," but for those looking for new catchphrases, "this is not your box" or the Caesar/Descartes mashup "We came! We won! We saw! We are!" would do. What, you're expecting more out of Randy Jackson's judging than catchphrases? Oh dear.
9. Schyler Dixon: Colton Dixon's sister. Remember Colton Dixon? We liked him! We sort of like you too, Schyler, but The Voice's Xenia Martinez did a better job with this Script.
For former Idol hopefuls, deadpan judges and other standouts, click NEXT.
THE FLAWLESS: 8-1
8. Colton Dixon: Colton > Schyler, because David Cook > The Script. Even though he'll probably peter out before the finals again.
7. Shannon Magrane: Shannon is tall. She’s in her early teens, but the judges assume she’s a lot older. She plays volleyball. Holy crap, Shannon is Sarah Jaxheimer! Anyone wanna guess whether she learned "Something's Got a Hold on Me" from Flo Rida or Avicii? Anyone wanna siphon some testosterone out of Steven Tyler? Anyone wanna point out that her Etta rendition was actually better than her 15 years would suggest? We'll volunteer for all three. (Which means: Flo Rida.)
6. Jennifer Lopez: Don't be fooled by her permagrin and cheeriness-doused demeanor; she's the only judge who really judges anymore, and her deadpan "what a beautiful family." after Steven hit on the aforementioned Magrane was comic gold.
5. Nigel Lythgoe: You're telling us he's been hiding offscreen (and in the credits) this entire time until intrepid Gabi Carrubba lifted the curtain to reveal the mastermind? You could spin so many symbolic conspiracy theories out of this! If this is Idol's last season, for instance, now we know what moment to blame--the Mawuena Kodjo BS.
4. Ashlee Altise: How do you make the Beatles' "Come Together" sound interesting after so many decades and so many bar-band covers? The best-braided contestant's addition of R&B melisma is a start. But equally important was...
3. Ashlee Altise’s "Joy Hop": Ashlee debuted a new dance craze (we can only assume) appropriate for when we find ourselves feeling “happy, overwhelmed, excited, and joyous.” That all-too-familiar quadrangle of emotions is represented in a dance which is a mix of the twist, crip walking, the charleston, and the dougie. Teach us how to joy hop, teach us, teach us how to joy hop.
2. Amy Brumfield: Once again: if you're going to give us an Instagrammed Blair Witch Guided Tour of a contestant's tent dwelling, you're probably going to put that contestant through to the finals. Steven Tyler showed remarkable restraint in not mentioning "pitching a tent" but considerably less restraint with "spirit of the children of the woods"--didn't the comment about her necklace being "the nicest thing she's ever worn" mean that maybe her place of home wasn't some kind of spiritual hippie choice? Thankfully, though, her voice was the complete opposite of the anodyne prettiness other contestants showed: a little scratch, a little tension, a lot of individuality. We really hope the Internet scuttlebutt about her criminal record doesn't derail her, because we'd like an Idol season with interesting singers.
1. Phillip Phillips: First: J. Lo's "You have electricity running through your body! It's super-special!" was obviously intended for Phillip's "Superstition" performance, not his down-south "Thriller"--such punmanship can only be intentional. Second: A country-rock version of "Thriller" is a pitch so honed to the radio and viral markets that had Idol not done it first, you could probably email it to an A&R guy and get a record deal. It'd be the stuff of breakout Idol moments if only Ryan hadn't alerted us that a breakout moment was ahead. Third: We're really sick of pointless genre-hopping and reinventions of songs, which happen so often on Idol and its derivatives these days that they're no longer surprising; they're expected. Fourth: Phillip's voice is raspy and much beefier than par, and his guitarwork genuinely great. He's awesome, and he can go far even without the gimmicks.